Before we hear from Mr. Walter, however, I'd like to examine two cases which bear on the subject.
There is no question that Zuckerberg played fast and loose with people and their ideas. But he has also now, after being brought into court, paid substantially for that privilege. After looking at all the facts, I would say he is not someone I would want as a friend. But he is a fairly typical representative of the world of business: exploit an idea, even if it began differently with someone else. After all, what idea doesn’t source out of an earlier idea? His actions don’t appear to be very different than those of the young Bill Gates as chronicled here.
RW - No one should lose sleep over having purchased a ticket to a movie that may not have been written by the writer credited onscreen. Software, social networks, ditto. Whoever feels exploited has the right to seek remedies via litigation and in a zillion other ways.
RW - Some 'points' are more important than others. In infringement litigation there are substantial similarities and also striking similarities. There were only two essential similarities between Buchwald's work and Coming to America: 1) African royalty in 2) urban America. Buchwald had already been paid more than a quarter million dollars in the early ‘80s, for a slight treatment he'd written. The judge ruled that he should receive another $150,000. This is commonly thought of as a victory for him, but in fact the law firm spent over two million dollars pressing his case. He sought about eight million dollars. One of his experts thought he should get 24 million dollars. Reiterating, the judge gave him $150,000. Without any modesty at all, this was my own recommendation, that is, that any contribution made by Buchwald was trivial, frail, slight, infinitesimally small.
RW - They say that falling in love is wonderful. I don't believe we've scratched the surface of available plots. There are infinite new plots. [As concerns the question] There is an extrinsic test and an intrinsic test, and it's quite complicated. There are seven or eight criteria, many of them nonsensical, like mood, for example. Imagine stealing someone's mood! Two of them are 'plot' and 'sequence of events.' I thought those were the same thing!
When we apply the legal versus ethical dichotomy to written intellectual property such as books and screenplays, is there any real hope for non-connected "little-guy" writers coming out of “fly-over” country when trying to sell to the established industries on either coast and, then, years later, finding their story on the big screen or ghost-written and on the best-seller list?
RW - Every big guy was once a 'little guy.' Material gets stolen from time to time, but it's the exception. Even a multi-million dollar screenplay sale represents but a handful of the percentage points relative to the whole investment. Studios have no interest in jeopardizing the entire project in order to deny the writer the one or two percentage points due her.
RW - Generally, the shorter the purportedly purloined material (Buchwald's reiterating, was maybe five hundred words) the harder to make the case for infringement.
RW - Registering it with the WGA is all you really need to do, though it needs to be renewed every five years. At twenty bucks for nonmembers, that's four dollars a year. Reiterating, infringement and plagiarism occur sometimes, but they are most exceptional. This is largely paranoia. Writers should quit worrying about their material being stolen and worry instead about writing material good enough that someone might want to steal it.
I have always come down on the side of “leading with your chin” when it comes to breaking in with your writing. The potential benefits out-weigh the risks. If your writing is good enough to steal, it’s good enough to sell. Go forth and multiply (your stories). You need to get in the pool if you’re gonna swim. You could get into trouble early, you could even drown. But most swimmers find ways to keep their heads above water and eventually swim. It’s simple: be careful out there, but get the hell out there! #